What is Michaelmas?

wiseGEEK Writer

Michaelmas is a holiday held on September 29, with Christian religious origins, and pagan roots of celebrating the Autumn Equinox. It’s linked to the end of the harvest, the beginning of the shorter and darker days that follow, and to references regarding the actions of the archangel Michael, who is said, around this time to have expelled Lucifer from Heaven. The day may also be called the Feast of St. Michael, the Feast of Michael and all Angels, or the Feast of Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, and Saint Raphael. Technically angels are not saints, but this is largely a semantic point.

Although Michael is the angel of battle, Michaelmas is not typically associated with warlike behavior.
Although Michael is the angel of battle, Michaelmas is not typically associated with warlike behavior.

You may also hear references in British courts and in most British schools to Michaelmas term. This is usually a term lasting from late September to mid-December. Waldorf schools in the US may break up terms in the same manner, with a Michaelmas term.

Michaelmas is celebrated every year on September 29.
Michaelmas is celebrated every year on September 29.

In the UK, Michaelmas was a day of celebration, since in most cases the harvest was over, and the old date for the holiday was the 11th or 12th of October. The day was called a quartering day since workers were paid, bills were due, and all accounts had to be settled. Initially, the day was a holy day of obligation as judged by the Catholic Church, but it is no longer one. In fact celebration of the day, except in Ireland, has largely been taken over by the Anglican Church, and various other Protestant denominations. Catholics do not have to attend mass on Michaelmas unless it falls on a Sunday.

Another tradition associated with Michaelmas dates back to the 7th century. Serfs chose the day to elect a reeve, a type of super serf or overseer who would help keep productivity high. The reeve also acted as advocate for other serfs, to make sure they received their fair pay and to bring up any issues of concern to the feudal lord or his agents.

In addition to being a harvest festival, the role of the angel Michael must be taken into account. Michael is the angel of battle, but the holiday is not typically associated with warlike behavior. Instead it’s sometimes called the festival of strong will, and celebrates the strength of Michael. It’s interesting that when you look the day up, you’ll note many references to the number of sick kids in schools during Michaelmas term. Perhaps strong will was needed to shore up for early autumn viruses, and it was certainly required for the colder weather that would soon be settling over houses and tiny, uninsulated cottages.

In earlier times, one interesting tradition was the ban on picking blackberries after Michaelmas. This relates to Lucifer’s expulsion from Paradise. Michael supposedly threw Lucifer from the heavens and he landed in a thorn bush. After the yearly festival, any thorned bushes are to be avoided in case Lucifer still lurks in one.

Michaelmas celebrates the fall equinox.
Michaelmas celebrates the fall equinox.

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